Greece and its sun-kissed isles offer a tantalizing cuisine that is fresh and fragrant, served with warmth and vitality. The Greeks’ zest for the good life and love of simple, well-seasoned foods is reflected at the table. Theirs is an unpretentious cuisine that makes the most of their surroundings. It is a cuisine entrenched in history and punctuated by the cultures of its neighbors for centuries: Turkey, the Middle East, and the Balkans.
This land of blue skies and sparkling seas offers a variety of fresh ingredients close at hand. Olive trees provide a flavor-packed oil to bathe other foods, vineyards produce excellent wines, and fragrant lemon trees produce the golden fruit whose tang pervades Greek gastronomy. The seas are abundant with a variety of fish and shellfish, and harbor-side tavernas serve them grilled, baked, fried and often whole, with the head still on.
Lamb is the principal meat served, and a holiday festivity calls for ceremoniously spit-roasting a whole carcass. For everyday meals, lamb is braised and stewed in casseroles with assorted vegetables and skewered and broiled. Pork, beef, and game are marinated, grilled, and baked. Chicken is broiled or braised. Good meat and vegetable combinations are endless, often embellished with a lemon sauce, avgolemono, or a cinnamon-spiced tomato sauce.
Moussaka, layered with eggplant or zucchini and a garlic-scented meat sauce, and bearing a custard topping, is the ubiquitous casserole dish. Pilafs are laced with spices and nuts. Fila pitas, composed of a flaky pastry and layered with chicken and mushrooms, spinach and feta, or lamb and leeks, are a delight. An abundance of fresh vegetables inspires imaginative cooked and marinated vegetable dishes and salads, often strewn with mountain-grown herbs: garlic, oregano, mint, basil, and dill. Fresh feta, Romano, and Kasseri, in particular, are used lavishly to accompany homemade whole-grain bread or salad or to grate and top vegetables or pasta.
Undoubtedly baklava is the most famous dessert, a multi-layered pastry ribboned with nuts and oozing with honey syrup. A visit to a Greek pastry shop reveals the versatility of fila dough in dozens of different fila pastries, many of Turkish derivation. The honeyed fila pastries and buttery nut cookies compose a separate late afternoon meal accompanied by thick Greek coffee. Fresh fruit — generally figs, orange, apples, and melon — usually conclude the late evening dinner.
Common Greek Cooking Terms and Ingredients
Arni – lamb
Avgolemono – An egg and lemon mixture used as a sauce or a soup base
Baklava – the most famous Greek dessert, made of layers of fila pastry, chopped nuts, and a honey-flavored syrup
Bourekakia – fila puffs made with various fillings
Dolmades – grapevine leaves stuffed with rice or meat
Feta – the classic white goat cheese of Greece
Fila, filo, or phyllo – the paper-thin pastry dough essential for appetizers, entrees, and desserts
Gouvetsi – the Greek word for casserole, or baked in the oven
Garides – shrimp
Kafes – coffee
Kalamaria – squid
Kalamata – probably the most famous Greek olive
Kasseri – creamy farm cheese
Kefalotiri – a hard, salty cheese, good for grating
Kourabiedes – butter cookies topped with powdered sugar
Mezethes – small savory appetizers
Moussaka – a layered casserole usually made with eggplant and chopped meat, and topped with a custard sauce
Orzo – tiny melon seed-shaped pasta
Ouzo – a colorless alcoholic drink flavored with anise
Pastitsio – a layered casserole of macaroni and chopped meat topped with a custard sauce
Pilafi – rice boiled in broth and flavored with onion and spices
Psari – fish
Retsina – white or rose wine flavored with pine resin
Rigani – oregano, an indispensable herb used in countless dishes
Skordalia – garlic sauce
Souvlakia – skewered food
Spanakopeta – spinach fila pastries
Tahini – crushed sesame seed paste
Tarama – fish roe
Taramosalata – fish roe spread
Tiropita – fila stuffed with Greek cheese
Tsatziki – cucumber yogurt dip